“Ascot’s Hong Kong Derby trial” is how more than one wag has described the Britannia Handicap in recent times, given the race’s record as a source of Hong Kong imports. The Royal meeting’s straight mile test for three-year-olds is certainly living up to that flippant moniker this year with two contestants from last June’s edition prominent among the 14 contenders for this weekend’s HK$18 million blue riband at Sha Tin, a race exclusive to four-year-olds.
Hong Kong connections watched with piqued interest when the Jamie Osborne-trained Defrocked surged from deep to claim the 2016 Britannia. Owner Chua Hwa Por must have liked what he witnessed because on Sunday (19 March) the Lope De Vega gelding, renamed Limitless, will carry his silver silks, adorned with pink star and topped with a pale blue cap, in the BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m).
“When he won the Britannia, Jamie (Spencer) just took him out of the race early and put him to sleep at the back,” Derby rider Neil Callan said this morning, Tuesday 14 March. “It takes a pretty good horse to beat a strong field like that over a mile at Ascot, making up the ground he did.”
John Moore, meanwhile, had his eyes on the sixth horse that day in Berkshire. Out And About, as the bay was then known, has since made his name in Hong Kong as Booming Delight, the Fastnet Rock gelding having been purchased by Peter Law who has seen his rising star carry his yellow and red silks to victory three times heading into the Derby.
“The owner gave us criteria to buy a horse and the Derby wasn’t even in the question; he said he wanted something rated around 72 with scope,” Moore said of the full-brother to G1 winner Rivet. “Peter’s a new owner for the stable, he’s had horses with John Size and Caspar Fownes before and he approached me out of the blue, and now we’ve got a surprise Derby runner!”
Ryan Moore will fly in from Australia to partner Booming Delight, while Callan will be wearing the Limitless silks for the second time. The Irishman is bubbling with confidence.
“Limitless has a big engine,” Callan enthused. “You can feel it when you ride him in the morning. And with an engine like that, you have to go in there confident; it’s the Derby, you have to be confident you can beat them and hope everything goes right.”
Everything did not go right for Limitless when he made his Hong Kong debut over 1600m on 30 January. The bay pulled like a locomotive, forcing rider Derek Leung to snatch his mount off heels more than once. Despite those exertions and a lack of racing room in the home straight, Limitless kept on to finish a solid 11th of 14, four and three quarter lengths behind his old foe Booming Delight.
“His first run was a write-off, he was too keen and nothing went right, but you can expect that from an import coming in first time,” Callan said.
Next start, Limitless dropped to 1400m and impressed with a surging last-to-first win under Silvestre de Sousa. That was on 19 February and, with a Derby berth up for grabs, trainer Peter Ho opted to step his exciting charge up to 1800m for another Class 2 assignment on 5 March. That’s when Callan took the reins.
“His win was good and then it was a bit difficult for Peter to send him from 1400 metres straight to the Derby over 2000, so the idea was to run him in the 1800-metre race because it just fell right into the programme. He ran well, he didn’t disgrace himself,” the rider said of that running-on third behind another Derby rival, the Joao Moreira-ridden Prawn Baba.
“Looking at that race, I think that if he was a straightforward horse and if I’d been able to put him where I’d wanted to, I reckon I would have won the race. Because of his mannerisms and the type of horse he is, I had to just forget about him the first part of the race and put him to sleep. Joao was going three wide around the corner and got the best run, and I had to navigate a bit of a passage. So in respect to that, it was a very good run - he ran the fastest final 400 metres of any horse in the race,” he continued.
Callan is hoping to switch off his lightly-raced mount at the rear of the field in Sunday’s big one, and whether he succeeds in that is, he believes, going to be the key to how the horse performs.
“My most important part of the race is the first half, where I have to put him to sleep and try to get him relaxed, then worry about the second half when I go down the back straight - that’s when I’ll be looking to see what I can get on the back of,” he said.
“They’ll run into the first corner like they always do, they’ll run like hares. Then once they get around the first bend - to the 1400 start in the back straight - it’s going to slow down. If it’s too slow, something might take off from the outside, there’ll be jostling for positions, but hopefully I’ll be settled out the back just watching that unfold.
“I have to ride the race as I feel it. Everyone has a plan but my plan is to get him to relax,” he said.
Moore’s pride in Booming
There was certainly a relaxed air about Moore this morning with the trainer looking forward to saddling almost half of Sunday’s field, including the likely favourite Rapper Dragon, winner of the first two legs of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, the Hong Kong Classic Mile and the Hong Kong Classic Cup.
“Six runners in the Derby, that’s a win in itself!” Moore beamed.
Booming Delight might not be the five-time Derby winner’s top pick, but the handler is clearly proud of the horse’s achievements so far in winning three from five in Hong Kong, a run that has seen him rise to a mark of 94 from an opening rating of 74.
“He’s a live chance, for the simple reason he’s already proven with a win at the 2000 metres. And he’s got the services of Ryan Moore, so I’m sure he’ll be there when the whips are cracking,” he said.
“The horse was expensive, for a 72/74 rated horse, it wasn’t easy to get him. But the owner was willing to spend that sort of money. And he’s proven to be quite a find in the sense that he’s progressed up the ratings to where he’s now a surprise runner in the Derby.”
Moore has bought horses out of Royal Ascot with regularity and won the 2009 Hong Kong Derby with the previous June’s Hampton Court Stakes winner, Collection. But market forces mean that he is now looking to source more of his Derby prospects from Australia.
“Ascot’s a good source of nice horses, and Goodwood and the July Meeting, too. We’ve bought some nice horses out of those meetings in England over the years,” he said.
“But we’re focusing more on Australia these days. Sourcing from Europe is so much more difficult because if a smart two-year-old comes along, the Qataris or the Dubai Sheikhs are straight onto it. In the past, they weren’t out there to get any two-year-old showing promise, they were depending on their own breeding operations or the yearling sales.
“Their tactics have changed and that makes it difficult for us to buy in Europe, so we’re searching more in Australia. In future we’ll take into consideration what’s going on but we’ll be looking more to the Australian scene for the likely Derby types for next season,” he stated.